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Mark Jenkins and three fellow Wyoming mountain climbers arrived in Egypt last November to scale red granite walls towering above the desert in south Sinai. They traveled by camel caravan -- the only way to reach the 1,000-foot walls. 

Internationally-recognized journalist and author Jenkins will tell stories and share photographs from the journey in the University of Wyoming's World to Wyoming Series with Mark Jenkins presentation, “Camels, Climbing and St. Catherine: An Expedition to Egypt.” There are five chances to catch his talk as it tours Wyoming starting Tuesday.

Jenkins is a field staff writer for National Geographic, UW writer in residence and senior fellow at the UW Center for Global Studies. 

Jenkins will tell stories of the oldest continuously-operating Christian monastery in the world, which was built in 565 A.D. at the base of Mount Sinai, the place where Moses is said in the Bible to have received the 10 commandments. His presentation will take attendees through the south Sinai desert by camel with Bedouins and high up the steep granite peaks, where the climbers set new routes, according to the university.

“The thing is what we've found through this expedition climbing these peaks is that there are these little oases of peace and harmony where people from different ethnic backgrounds, people with different religions, are living side by side and getting along,"Jenkins said. "And that’s just not a story you hear very much." 

Adventure and exploration

It all started last fall, when Jenkins was looking for his next expedition. For the past two years, he’d traveled to Alaska and the Himalayas.

“I was just ready for some kind of expedition where I didn't have to wear a down parka,"Jenkins said, "And people, I think, in Wyoming can appreciate that." 

He was exploring Africa on Google Earth when he spotted red walls. He learned of British climber Dave Lucas who'd climbed them for decades and told Jenkins he’d found the secret place in Africa for incredible climbing -- and how to get there with help from Bedouins. 

The perfect season to travel the region was upon him, so Jenkins called three climbing buddies, Micah Rush of Casper and Kyle Duba and Kyle Elmquist of Lander. The four left for Egypt the next week.

There they visited St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest continuously-operating Christian monastery in the world, which now houses a mosque inside, he said. 

“There is a Christian church and a Muslim mosque side by side right on the summit (above the monastery),” Jenkins said. “And you walk up there with pilgrims of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. And so this area is sacred to all three religions.”

Later, they trekked with a group of Bedouins toward the red rock walls of the Jebel Naja. Their guides bought the food and cooked the meals as they traveled together on camels through the desert mountain region. They ate bread, cooked over a fire daily and ate Mediterranean dishes like olives, couscous and baba ganoush, he said.

“We couldn't have traveled through this desert region without the Bedouins, because they know where the oases are, they know where the water is, they know who owns the land and they know how to get the permission,” Jenkins said.

At one point Jenkins was talking to one of the guides about religion and asked what sect of Muslim he was. The man was almost offended by the question. The Bedouins don’t want to be associated with terrorism, he said.

“I'm just a Muslim,” he told Jenkins. “I follow the 10 Commandments, that's what I do.”

Along with an old-fashioned adventure of climbing the walls, Jenkins explored a place with a story that turns on its head the standard assumptions of the Middle East -- which is often associated with war and turmoil, he said.

“But it’s not all horrible, when all of these little communities that have been operating for centuries where the Bedouin live right with the Christians and they work together and their kids play together,” Jenkins said. “It was an example of a place where tolerance trumps terrorism.”

Bringing back a story

Jenkins’ job with the University of Wyoming is to bring back a story and a perspective from another part of the world, whether it’s Burma, Everest or Cambodia.

“The goal of these 'World to Wyoming' programs is it's an opportunity to see a place that they might not even have imagined, to give them an opportunity to think about a culture in a different way,” he said.

He gave his presentations in northern Wyoming last spring. Now, he'll be visiting towns in the southern and central parts of the state.

His account of the Sinai expedition appeared in Men’s Journal

The talks allow more detail than the published stories, with an hour to delve into history, archaeology and geopolitics, plus a question-and-answer session that often goes for quite a while, he said.

“Wyomingites are curious, you know, they really do want to know more about the world and how it's put together, and so the Q&A is always a lot of fun,” Jenkins said. “People ask all sorts of questions and we get into a really good discussion about kind of cultural bias and comparing cultures and recognizing your own bias and that sort of thing.”

However much one researches and collects data about a place, it’s not until you’re on the ground hearing people tell stories of their lives that one can gain a real understanding of a place, he said.

“I hope that the community's takeaway is a new or fresh perspective on a culture that we may have not thought about or we may have stereotyped,” he said.

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Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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